Monday, June 22, 2009

Verdicts: Lawrence Keeter, et al v. Alpine Towers Int'l, Inc.

Summary and Commentary by Brian A. Comer

A York County jury awarded $4,750,000 to the family of a former Fort Mill High School student in a case that included products liability claims. The plaintiff was paralyzed when he fell during a climbing wall accident. The Rock Hill Herald reported the story in an article that is cut and pasted further below. I have also obtained a copy of the Amended Complaint and the jury verdict form from Plaintiff's counsel. A summary of the case, based on all of the information received to date, is as follows:

Date of Injury: May 5, 2006

Date of Award: June 19, 2009

County and Court: York County Court of Common Pleas, Sixteenth Judicial Circuit

Trial Judge: The Honorable John C. Hayes, III

Plaintiffs and Counsel: Lawrence "Larry" Keeter was the injured plaintiff. He was 20 years old at the time of trial, and a senior at Fort Mill High School at the time of the accident. His parents, Ronald Travis Keeter and Rebecca Keeter, were also named as plaintiffs in the Amended Complaint. They were represented by Richard A. Harpootlian and Graham L. Newman (Columbia, South Carolina).

Defendants and Counsel: Alpine Towers International, Inc. ("Alpine") (whose website, I believe, is here) and Ashley Sexton were named as defendants in the Amended Complaint (filed May 28, 2009). Alpine installed the "Alpine Tower" climbing equipment at issue in the case, according to the Amended Complaint and the news report. Ms. Sexton was the "belayer" who allegedly lost her grip on the rope that was holding the injured plaintiff. Ms. Sexton was dismissed from the case, but she was included on one portion of the verdict form in order for the jury to apportion fault. Alpine was represented by Thomas C. Salane (Columbia, South Carolina) at trial.

Nature of Injury: The injured plaintiff fractured his spine after falling 20 feet in a climbing wall accident. Heis confined to a wheelchair and doctors have told him he might never walk again, per the news report.

Nature of claims: Plaintiffs brought the following claims in the case, as set forth in the Amended Complaint:
  • Negligence as to Defendant Sexton (relating to her duty to properly belay the injured plaintiff);
  • Negligence as to Alpine (relating to its duty to adequately train high school faculty members so as to ensure proper supervision of participants and use of the equipment);
  • Products liability (strict liability) as to Alpine (relating to failure to provide adequate instructions and warnings, and failure to incorporate an aut0-locking device);
  • Products liability (negligence) as to Alpine (relating to failure to cure deficiencies in its instructions, warnings, and safety devices);
  • Loss of services as to Defendant Sexton and Alpine (relating to loss of services by Plaintiff's parents).
Jury Verdict: The jury awarded $4,750,000 to Plaintiffs. The jury returned three verdict forms, which set forth the award as follows:

(Verdict Form as to Larry Keeter)
  • Strict Liability: "We find for Larry Keeter $ five hundred & 00/100 ($500.00) in actual damages."
  • Products Liability (Negligence): The jury found Alpine to have been negligent with regard to "Inadequate Instructions and Warnings and Failure to Incoporate an Autolocking Belay Device." The jury apportioned 100 percent fault to Alpine with regard to this theory. The jury awarded $900,000 in actual damages and $160,000 in punitive damages to Larry Keeter for this claim.
  • General Negligence: The jury found Alpine generally negligence with regard to "Failure to Adequately Train"). The jury apportioned 100 percent fault to Alpine with regard to this theory. The jury awarded $2,500,000 in actual damages and $950,000 in punitive damages to Larry Keeter for this claim.

(Verdict Form as to Travis and Rebecca Keeter)

  • Loss of Service: The jury found for Travis and Rebecca Keeter with regard to this theory and awarded $240,000 in actual damages.

(Verdict Form (pertaining to fault apportionment))

  • The jury apportioned fault as to Larry Keeter's fall in the amount of 40% for Alpine and 60% for Ashley Sexton.


A cut and paste from the news article in The Rock Hill Herald that reported the verdict is provided below.

Verdict brings ‘closure' for student hurt in climbing wall fall

By Matt Garfield -

A York County jury on Friday awarded $4.7 million to the family of a former Fort Mill High School student left paralyzed in a climbing wall accident.

Larry Keeter suffered a fractured spine when he fell 20 feet to the ground during a Spring Fling field day in May 2006. Doctors have told him he might never walk again.

Keeter's family filed a lawsuit against the North Carolina-based company that installed the climbing wall. Friday's verdict delivered long-awaited relief to Keeter and his parents, who voiced hope that it would lead to improved safety conditions at similar climbing walls across the country.

“Hating somebody is not going to get me up and walking,” Keeter said. “The best thing I can do is help people realize there's a change that's needed to prevent this from happening again.”

The tower company, Alpine Towers International of Pineola, N.C., did not return phone calls seeking comment Friday afternoon. Thom Salane, an attorney for the company, also couldn't be reached.

Now 20, Keeter is confined to a wheelchair. Every day, he says, his mind flashes back to the accident.

Then a senior, Keeter had ascended the 50-foot climbing wall and was rappelling down while strapped inside a harness.

A student on the ground acting as a “belayer” lost her grip on the rope, and Keeter plummeted 20 feet, landing on his feet and then crumpling to the ground, the lawsuit states. He shattered one vertebrae; the impact sent a shock up his back and fractured his spine.

Doctors at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte removed bone fragments from Keeter's spinal canal and realigned his spine. They put eight bolts and two metal rods in his back.

Keeter's family brought in Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian to pursue a lawsuit against Alpine Towers, which had installed the tower after it was donated by Carowinds.

Harpootlian cited faulty design, saying the belay equipment lacked an automatic locking device that could have prevented Keeter's fall. The suit also said Alpine did not adequately train Fort Mill High School faculty members.

“You don't put kids in a position where their lives literally hang in the balance based on the attentiveness of other kids,” Harpootlian said Friday. “That is what our experts hammered.”
Harpootlian said he expects Alpine to file an appeal.

Fort Mill officials took down the climbing wall soon after the accident. Alpine installed the tower and trained school officials on how to use it, according to the lawsuit.

There are at least 11 alpine towers in South Carolina and nearly 240 around the world, according to published reports. A 10-year safety report published in 1999 concluded that tower users reported 176 minor accidents and 18 serious accidents.

After Keeter's accident, some tower operators said they would re-evaluate their safety methods.
Keeter has made progress over the past three years. He lives in a handicapped accessible apartment near the Rock Hill Galleria and drives himself around in a car equipped with a gas pedal on the steering wheel.

He earned a computer certification from York Technical College but hasn't found steady work.

Memories from the accident are still fresh in Keeter's mind. Hitting the ground. School personnel rushing to help him. Learning at the hospital that he had broken his spine.

The jury's decision brought closure to a long ordeal, but Keeter was in no mood to celebrate. His family had waited at the courthouse until well past midnight Thursday while the jury deliberated.

Asked what he planned to do next, Keeter said he just wanted to go home and take a nap.

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